The Art of Running for President

So far, everything is going Phil Gramm’s way. He has the money. He has the message. He has the motivation. Now comes the hard part.

April 1995By Comments

On the day that he took the oath of office as a freshman congressman in January 1979, Phil Gramm found himself standing next to former state senator Kent Hance of Lubbock, another freshman. Already friends, they had attended the Super Bowl together the previous year, and when the Dallas Cowboys had scored a touchdown, Gramm had shouted to Hance above the cheers, “If we cut spending and balance the budget, they’ll be yelling this way for us.” It was the first indication for Hance, himself a person of considerable ambition, that Gramm’s absorption with politics was even more intense than his own. Now, as the swearing-in ceremonies droned on, came another revelation. Looking around the crowded House floor, Hance leaned over to Gramm and whispered, “How many of these people do you think want to be Speaker?” Gramm gave him a look of disbelief: “You mean president.”

Of all the qualities required of a president of the United States – vision, character, charisma, credentials, leadership, political skill, and so on – the one indispensable trait is a relentless hunger for the job. Phil Gramm has it. Although naked ambition is usually regarded as repellent in American politics, Gramm has never tried to clothe his. No sooner had the Texas A&M economics professor won his party’s nomination to Congress (he was a Democrat then) than he said, “I didn’t give up my career to write articles and give speeches. I want to be a worker.” As a freshman U.S. senator in 1985, following his switch to the Republican party, he announced, “I’m ambitious, but I’m ambitious to have an impact.” By 1990, he was so open about his intention to run for president in 1996 that when he sought the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), opponents claimed – unsuccessfully, but accurately – that Gramm would use it to position himself for his White House bid. This is not the textbook way to win the presidency, but Phil Gramm has never been a textbook politician. Uncompromising in his free-market philosophy, disdainful of genteel legislative tradition, so abrasive it has been said that “even his friends don’t like him,” Gramm has nonetheless achieved enormous success as a senator – and, so far, as a presidential candidate.

How far can Phil Gramm’s ambition carry him? Until he won a straw poll of Louisiana Republican activists in January with an overwhelming 72 percent of the vote, hardly anyone gave him much chance to be the GOP nominee in 1996. The problem was not his record: In just his second term in Congress, Gramm had led the fight for Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts; in his first year in the Senate, he had produced the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction plan. His main obstacle was a lack of the attributes that typically win presidential nominations: the appealing personality and ideological base of a Ronald Reagan or the long resume and loyal friendships of a George Bush. He has an untempered negative attitude toward government and a dark vision of what America’s future will be if his ideas do not prevail.

What Gramm does have is motivation, money, and a knack for strategy. While other prospective Republican candidates were waiting for 1995 to make their move, he accelerated the timetable of the campaign. He crisscrossed the country as chairman of the NRSC, built a database containing 164,000 names of contributors and activists, and forced potential opponents to decide whether to start the grueling process of traveling and raising money. They had the credentials to make the race, but did they have the will? Without the incessant drive, a potential candidate sooner or later will ask the fatal question: Is the quest worth the terrible price it extracts – the sacrifice of my time, my self-respect, my privacy, my physical strength, my reputation? One by one, Gramm’s rivals considered what would be required – a year and a half on the road, four hours a day asking for money in order to match his goal of $20 million – and they began to drop out: Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, William Weld.

Phil Gramm never wavered. To him the endless rounds of airplane flights, handshakes, speeches, and fundraising calls are the oxygen of presidential politics: Either it’s in your blood or you die. Most presidential aspirants hate asking for money, but not Gramm. When he’s in a car going from one event to another or between airport and town, he’s always working a cellular phone. A Gramm consultant recalls that during the 1984 race to succeed retiring U.S. senator John Tower, Gramm asked Tower to join him on a quick campaign swing. Tower took one glance at the long itinerary, packed with appearances from early breakfasts to late dinners, and recoiled. “Is this a week’s schedule?” Tower wanted to know. It was for two days.

Gramm has won phase one of the race for the Republican nomination. By the time he became the first announced candidate on February 24 – one day after holding the most lucrative political fundraiser in history – the only big name still in the running was Senate majority leader Bob Dole. Suddenly Gramm was the center of attention, the subject of profiles by 60 Minutes and the New York Times Magazine on the same weekend. Although he lags behind the better-known Dole in public opinion polls, Gramm has the stronger conservative message and has raised more money.

Now phase two has begun – the building of organizations, the jockeying for endorsements, the wooing of activists, the honing of messages, the media scrutiny. Will money and motivation be enough to propel Phil Gramm those last steps to the prize he has so long sought? Or will the hard edge of his personality relegate him to a historical footnote alongside the names of other ambitious Texans – Lloyd Bentsen and John Connally – who had the desire, the ability, and the money to be president but never managed to captivate voters?

“Do you realize that to balance the federal budget, all we have to do is freeze spending at current levels for three years?” Phil Gramm reached across the desk once used by Lyndon Johnson and snatched a thick green book from the top of a pile. “This is Bill Clinton’s budget,” he said, his head thrust forward in the characteristic pose some have likened to a turtle but at that moment more closely resembled a bird of prey. “Revenues are growing by $87 billion a year. The trouble is, spending is growing even faster. The key to balancing the budget is stopping spending growth.” Less than an hour earlier, the Republicans’ balanced budget amendment had been defeated on the Senate floor. Gramm had just returned from a press conference at which GOP senators had blamed Clinton for the defeat. But his thoughts were focused on a different administration – his own. “I’m not saying I would do it that way, but I would do it. Is it easy? No. Do families and businesses routinely make harder decisions? Yes.”

He has been delivering the same message for twenty years, ever since he was a 33-year-old professor with thick sideburns that reached the bottom of his ears, nerdy black glasses, and a willingness to address any civic club or convention that would listen to his ideas about what was wrong with government. “In simple language any Aggie can understand,” he would say, “inflation is caused by federal deficit spending.” Or: “There are too many people riding in the wagon. We need more people pulling the wagon.” Even then, the ambition burned within him. Asked during an appearance at the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, “How many people with your way of thinking do we have to elect for the survival of the free enterprise system?” he promptly answered, “One would be a good start.” 

Gramm thought about running for Congress in 1976 but chose instead to challenge Bentsen in the Democratic senatorial primary. The problem facing him then was much like the one that confronted him a year ago as he geared up for his presidential race: How could he convince skeptics that he could win? Against Bentsen, Gramm never reached a threshold of credibility; he got just 28 percent of the vote to Bentsen’s 63 percent. 

This time, Gramm’s solution was to put together a narrated slide show touting his electability. Its targeted audience was donors, operatives, and party officials, and it has been shown around Texas and across America. It is not subtle. Not a word is said of his personal life, his political achievements, or his philosophical beliefs. This show is about winning: how money and organization will determine the GOP nominee in 1996. 

The show begins with charts of fundraising in past presidential races. Gramm aides have analyzed every race since individual donors were limited to a maximum contribution of $1,000 in the seventies. Their discovery: In every election, in both political parties, the candidate with the most cash in January of the election year became the nominee. Who raised $121 million for GOP senatorial candidates with letters over his signature? Phil Gramm. Who has a donor base of 80,000 names? Phil Gramm. Who will raise the maximum amount allowed by law for 1996 – and already has almost $9 million? Who else but Phil Gramm? 

Part two covers organization. On a U.S. map, states colored yellow were visited by Gramm in 1991. States in blue were not. As the slides and the years click by, the yellow grows and the blue diminishes until he has visited 46 states. Kansas, Bob Dole’s home state, remains blue. More slides chronicle every trip Gramm has made to Iowa, where the first delegates to the 1996 convention will be chosen next February 12. The process is repeated for New Hampshire. By the time the clicking stops, the viewer is convinced that Gramm already knows practically every Republican voter in both of these crucial early states.

The Gramm gospel is that other candidates can’t catch up with him. So many states have moved up their primary dates (most notably, California) that 60 percent of the delegates will be chosen by March 26. A seventeen-week process has been shortened to seven. In 1996 the outflow of money will occur earlier, and the time for inflow will be shorter. Gramm’s head start will prove decisive – in theory. 

The slide show is overwhelming but not uplifting. Its theme is not that Phil Gramm is a great man but that he’s a great fundraiser. It neglects to mention that money is only a means, not an end; it can buy access to voters, but it can’t buy votes. Remember John Connally in 1980: $11 million for just one delegate.

In the end, Phil Gramm’s fate will depend upon personality and message. In other years both might have been judged too extreme for him to win. But he may be in luck. His Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, has turned congeniality into a weakness; meanwhile, his Republican rival, Bob Dole, vacillates between tough talk one day and a David Letterman talk show appearance the next. 1996 may be a year when nice guys finish last. As for message, the Newt Gingrich agenda makes Gramm’s free-market conservatism seem mainstream. “In most election years,” concedes Jim Francis, a prominent Dallas Republican operative and Gramm strategist, “Phil’s style and genre might not make it to the finish line. But he’s uniquely suited to this conservative atmosphere. He may not be a man for all seasons, but he’s a man for this season.”

The question that the country will soon be asking about Phil Gramm is, What makes him the way he is? Does his driven, focused manner derive from his childhood in Columbus, Georgia, when his father suffered a disabling stoke, his mother had to work as a housekeeper, and young Phil flunked three grades in school? Or does it derive from his intellect, his commitment to the abstract concept of the free market? There is an answer to these questions, but it is unlikely that people outside of Texas will fully understand it. 

What Phil Gramm is, is an Aggie. 

“I liked Texas A&M from the minute I got there,” Gramm told me. “I liked the attitude, I liked the spirit, I liked the comradeship. When I get through here, I’m going back.”

He arrived in College Station in 1967, when he was in his mid-twenties. It was a formative moment in his life – his first real job, his first time to leave Georgia for a prolonged period – and, like many professors and parents of A&M students, he became an adopted Aggie, as enthusiastic about the rural culture and the traditions of the school as any student. Not by accident would Gramm become the political figure who changed rural Texas from Democratic to Republican. He raises money in big-city Texas, but he doesn’t socialize there; unlike his fellow Republican senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, he’s never been to a society ball in his life. Gentility means nothing to him. His friends live in places like Groesbeck and Victoria and College Station.

But it was the times as much as the traditions that shaped the new professor. Texas A&M was an island in the stormy seas of the sixties, a place where Corps members not only supported the Vietnam War but expected – and wanted – to fight in it. Around Northgate, by the A&M campus, Aggies wore their hair short, dressed conservatively, and sneered about the decadence of hated T.U. in Austin, where Guadalupe Street was a seething world of psychedelic T-shirts and granny glasses, girls without bras and boys with long hair. “A&M was a closed environment with different principles that were almost universally held,” recalls onetime Aggie yell leader Rick Perry, now the state agriculture commissioner. The moment that former students most remember was the day in 1970 when four students were killed at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. That night, as the Corps marched to dinner, a senior posted a sign in his window: “Ohio State National Guard 4, Kent State 0.” Units cheered as they went past. 

It is possible to see in such a place the seeds of Phil Gramm’s approach to politics: a belief that your principles are right and the rest of the world’s are wrong, a belief that those principles can only prevail if you fight for them, and most of all, a belief that there is no common ground with those who see things differently – and a disdain for what people on the other side think about you. 

Vietnam was not the pivotal issue of the sixties for Gramm, whose draft deferments are already an issue in his contest with Dole, the wounded World War II hero. To him, the sixties brought a moral indifference to the continuing erosion of economic liberty by big government. “In 1950 the average family sent one dollar of every fifty to Washington,” he likes to say. “Today, it’s one dollar of every four.” Although critics have accused him of wanting to undo the New Deal, that’s not the era that interests him. “Nobody is talking about repealing the New Deal,” he told me. “I want to look at the programs we adopted in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. If we don’t change our direction, we’re not going to be living in the same country in twenty years.” 

More and more, the political battles of the nineties are the outgrowth of a generational civil war that began thirty years ago, when Phil Gramm and Bill Clinton were young. Now it has erupted again in their maturity. For Gramm, the 1996 election is Northgate versus Guadalupe Street all over again.

What makes Phil Gramm’s ascent as a presidential contender so remarkable is that the Almanac of American Politics has described him as “among the least popular of senators.” He refuses to act like a member of the Club – which means keeping small disputes out of public view, treating rivals with deference, avoiding incidents that might show up your colleagues, and following the time-honored axiom of Capitol Hill behavior: “To get along, go along.”

He has followed his own course since he was a brand-new congressman in 1979. One of his first actions was to ask the House Rules Committee to authorize a floor vote on balancing the budget. He was, he pointedly reminded the committee, the only sitting congressman with a doctorate in economics. Unimpressed, the committee turned him down. He took the fight to the floor anyway and lost a procedural motion by just 201-199. If Speaker Tip O’Neill hadn’t gaveled the voting to a quick close, Gramm might have won.

“He never cared what anybody thought of him,” says Democratic congressman Charles Wilson of Lufkin, who voted with Gramm during the fight over the Reagan budget cuts. “Jim Wright [then the majority leader] felt that Gramm betrayed the Democrats’ secrets, but there were no secrets. Gramm openly sided with the Republicans.”

Gramm had figured out the truth about the Club: Its rules are designed to protect the weak. If you’re smart enough, hard-working enough, and thick-skinned enough, you don’t need the Club – and its members will be afraid to take you on. Their response is more likely to be a back-alley mugging, as when the House Democratic leadership punished Gramm for his apostasy by kicking him off the Budget Committee in January 1983. 

As expected, Gramm switched parties. Then, in a principled – and shrewd – move, he resigned the seat that he had won as a Democrat and ran again as a Republican. GOP governor Bill Clements obligingly set an early date for a special election, before Democratic candidates had time to mount a full fundraising effort. Using the line, “I had to choose between y’all and Tip O’Neill, and I chose y’all,” Gramm won without a runoff. Later that year John Tower announces his retirement, and Gramm was on his way to the Senate. 

He did nothing to change his fingernails-on-a-blackboard style in his new surroundings. As his critics have been quick to point out, his zeal for cutting the budget was matched only by his zeal for bringing federal projects like the supercollider to Texas. “Have you no shame?” an exasperated Democratic colleague once asked him during the debate. “Either vote for these projects and be quiet about it, or do not make these long, lengthy speeches saying, ‘I am for cutting spending’ and then vote not to do it.” Eventually the Club exacted its revenge by closing down the supercollider.

Despite not being a team player, Gramm continued to succeed in the Senate. When Bob Dole and other Republicans were looking to compromise on Bill Clinton’s health care plan, Gramm warned them it would pass “over my cold, dead political body.” He could be equally intransigent about small issues. In 1992 he fought a highly technical bill involving limited partnerships that was cosponsored by 70 of 100 senators and favored by 17 of 21 members on the banking committee. During a committee hearing, Gramm spoke against the bill for half an hour, debated it for another half-hour, then demanded a quorum call of the committee – a rarely used tactic that forced the committee to adjourn. Against all odds, he ended up killing the bill.

Following the 1992 elections, Gramm decided to seek an unprecedented second term as chairman of the NRSC, a position chosen by the GOP senators themselves. The job was crucial to his race for the presidency; it meant two more years of free travel to key states, two more years of adding names to his database. It was a nasty race. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the opponent Gramm had defeated in 1990, ran a negative campaign and said so publicly. Gramm’s presidential ambitions were one issue (he had promised in 1990 that he could retain the committee staff – but had promptly started replacing them with his own people after his election); another was the party’s lack of success in the ’92 elections: two seats gained, two lost. In the end, his reputation for raising money carried the day, by a single vote. “My colleagues thought I could do the job,” Gramm told me during our interview, but in fact, he soon infuriated them. He solicited the NRSC’s biggest contributors for money for his own war chest, and he redirected money from incumbents he regarded as safe to races that were closely contested, saying that he wasn’t paying for any landslides. But the criticism stopped when the GOP picked up nine seats in 1994, enough to regain control of the Senate. 

Nothing has changed since Gramm began running for president in earnest. Deference is not in him. When Dan Quayle dropped out of the race, Gramm has the first candidate on TV with the claim that Quayle’s conservative support would fall to him; he didn’t bother to praise the dear departed. When aides to California governor Pete Wilson, who was debating whether to enter the presidential race, passed the word that other candidates should stay away from February’s state convention, Bob Dole agreed. “But Gramm,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “after essentially inviting himself, managed to steal the spotlight.” He vowed to enter the California primary no matter who else was in the race – and won a straw poll conducted by conservatives friendly to Gramm with 56 percent of the vote.

Today Phil Gramm is positioned right where he wants to be. The Republican field has been winnowed. Among the remaining major candidates – Dole, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, possibly Pete Wilson, and himself – Gramm has the biggest appeal to the dominant ideological wing of the party, the hard right. His fundraising is ahead of schedule. Arizona plans to move its primary forward to February 27; this would assure him an early victory. Dole, as majority leader, couldn’t secure the votes for the balanced budget amendment and faces a summer in Washington, dealing with explosively controversial legislation pushed by Newt Gingrich. Gramm, meanwhile, will be out campaigning.

Still, there are plenty of signs of trouble ahead. Thus far the campaign has played to Gramm’s strengths – organization, fundraising, message, strategy. Now that he’s officially a candidate, his control over events has diminished. His fate will be determined not just by how strong his strong points are, but by how weak his weak points are. 

One that is very weak indeed is his relationship with the national media. He hasn’t courted them, and they don’t like him. Newsweek called him “the screeching heavy metal in what once was the stately opera of presidential politics.” Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman wrote, “Compared to Gramm, Dick Nixon seemed warm and cuddly.” The media’s case against Gramm has three main components: He’s mean, he lacks compassion, he’s a hypocrite. Of these, the most damaging is the last, because it undercuts the philosophical basis of his candidacy. But it is also the farthest from the mark.

The argument is that Gramm opposes government handouts, yet he has benefited, personally and politically, from government largesse. PHIL GRAMM: ENTITLED FOR LIFE? was the headline of a scathing column by bellwether political analyst David Broder of the Washington Post, who chronicled Gramm’s lifelong receipt of federal and state support from the time he was born in an Army base hospital to his Texas A&M and congressional paychecks. Clearly annoyed by the column, which had appeared the day before our interview, Gramm said, “Nobody asked me if I wanted to be born in a military hospital. The idea that because I taught at a public university, I can’t be against cutting government spending – the public can see through that.” 

Other critics have focused on “Grammstanding,” a term that Texas Democrats have used against him with little effect but has acquired a second life in the campaign. This refers to his championing of spending projects for Texas while advocating budget cuts for everybody else. Gramm’s stock answer is that he is more committed to changing government than anyone else in the race, which is true. What he can’t say, but is obvious to anyone who has followed his record, is that he has no doubt voted against his state’s interests, when they are in conflict with his philosophy, more than any other member of the Senate. He opposed an oil import fee, unemployment benefits for oil-field workers, and a federal bailout for Mexico. He was for cracking down on insolvent S&L’s. He’s against delaying the closing of military bases and using federal funds to convert them to peacetime uses. Still, the Grammstanding charge is not likely to go away. In Washington, purists are held to a higher standard. 

Gramm is about to receive more scrutiny than he has ever had. Soon we will be hearing about his first race for Congress, when anonymous letters were mailed out accusing him of having a “sorted” past. Reporters are prying into his first marriage, trying to find out why it ended in divorce after six years. He will be receiving more scrutiny on issues, too, especially social security, which Texas Democrats have long claimed that Gramm would include in his budget-cutting plans. In 1984 the Gramm campaign sent senior citizens a letter from his mother, Florence Scroggins Gramm, who wrote in her own handwriting, “Phil understands the importance of social security since he knows that without my $333 paycheck each month, I would lose the house that Phil’s father and I bought.” Today Gramm says, “I’m not going to ever touch social security as a part of deficit reduction. I am concerned about actuarial soundness. I’m not going to let social security go broke on my watch.”

All of this negativism has given forlorn Democrats some hope that Gramm might be one opponent who Bill Clinton could beat. Nothing rankles Gramm more than reports that the White House is rooting for him to win the Republican nomination. “The thing that drives the Democrats crazy,” he told me, “is that I’m a blue collar Republican. Despite their statements, they’re scared to death of me.”

Maybe. But for all his flying start, there remains something soulless about the Gramm candidacy. Too many people – his colleagues, the media, and, one suspects, the voters – see Phil Gramm only in one dimension. So far, he has yet to demonstrate that he deserves better. He has positioned himself purely as a candidate of ideology, but such crusades are seldom successful. Occasionally an ideologue captures a presidential nomination, but the fate of the examples that come to mind – Barry Goldwater and George McGovern – will offer Gramm scant comfort. Maybe times have changed, maybe the Republican Revolution has elevated ideology to the forefront, but the imperatives of voting for a president haven’t changed. You’re picking somebody whose face you’re going to see, whose voice you’re going to have to listen to, every day for the next four years. That is a very personal thing. But Phil Gramm has yet to show that he is a very personal politician.

Related Content